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Dialogue Is The HUD

In books, dialog is action. In games, dialog is exposition. For genres that lack the human element, here is news.

Throughout human history and across all cultures, a few human endeavors remain paramount.  Mercantile trade.  Falling in love.  Political and military matters.  Many videogame genres have tackled these to varying degrees of faithfulness, but one of the oldest persistent features of humanity receives about as much attention from videogames as an error pop-up:  the dissemination of news. 

News is how people know what is going on in the world.  Before electricity, news had to physically travel from place to place in the care of an actual human being, either in the hand or in the head.  After electricity, news didn't stay local.  The more unique an event, the farther and faster it traveled.  A devastating tsunami is of interest even to those who live on the other side of the planet, who know no one involved, and who can do nothing about it.  We still want to know.  News is how humanity takes its own temperature.  

News is also dialogue.  When people talk, more often than not they talk of news.  Plot twists are delivered as news.  Someone's cover is blown by the news.  Characters in romance books practically broker in small news, gradually shifting from the sketchy and superficial to the most personal and secret.  As in real life, news plays an important part in stories. 

Games in which we play the general, the god, the governor, they have many menus, sidebars, pop-ups, and other iconic ways of imparting What's Going On.  The windowing user interface of modern computers are great for presenting lots of information quickly, was specifically designed for it in fact, and a natural fit for said games.  And so, it has.  Playing many of these games resembles tuning a spreadsheet, with all the emergent story that that curtails.

Gathering news via in-game dialogue is certainly less efficient than a pre-packaged heads-up display (HUD), but that doesn't mean it's bad.  It happens within the fictional world, not on top of it, and that matters loads.  Take the 4X game -- explore, expand, exploit, exterminate -- and change its interface to one exclusively of dialogue with characters.  Come down out of the clouds and talk to the people who inhabit the world you administer, inhabiting it yourself, even.   Dialogue -is- the HUD.  What kind of game is it now?  

Put yourself among advisors, your advisors, who are developed characters with stories and lives of their own, with defined and complex relationships between themselves and you.  They talk, you listen.  You talk, they listen.  They heard things from their subordinates, who heard from their subordinates, and so on.  You are the apex of a news-gathering web of people, many of whom you know personally, all transmitting information through speech, administering through dialogue.  

Micromanagement becomes a way of getting to know the characters around you. Attacks on outposts have emotional weight.  The populace's feelings, a constant backdrop.  You learn the world's problems from the mouths of the people who live in it and not from a divine accounting book.  This is the grist for emergent story.  

Techniques for creating videogames change over time.  Palette-swapping to make new characters from old is no longer acceptable.  Multiple deaths until the player gets the one perfect action right is now lazy design.  Number-crunching for fun is niche.  In the age of Kinect, game interfaces which use the same pop-up boxes and pull-down menus as office applications look increasingly dated.  

Even God gets prayers by ear.

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